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Five prostitutes work at Dreamland, in Tokyo's Yoshiwara district. As the Diet considers a ban on prostitution, the women's daily dramas play out. Each has dreams and motivations. Hanae is married, her husband unemployed; they have a young child. Yumeko, a widow, uses her earnings to raise and support her son, who's now old enough to work and care for her. The aging Yorie has a man who wants to marry her. Yasumi saves money diligently to pay her debt and get out; she also has a suitor who wants to marry her, but she has other plans for him. Mickey seems the most devil-may-care, until her father comes from Kobe to bring her news of her family and ask her to come home.Written by
One thing that sticks out like a wonderful, strange thumb in Kenzi Mizoguchi's (unintentional) swan song is the musical score by Toshirô Mayuzumi. With the exception of a couple of scenes, like when one of the older women working at the Dreamland whorehouse is found on the street by another of the women as she has left her husband, the music is far from being the usual melodramatic simple strings and flutes or whatever. The music for Street of Shame is warped, twangy, accentuated by the the playing of that weird one string instrument (if you've heard Jack Nietzche's score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest you know what I mean), not supplying the emotional context but observing it, setting an unusual tone for scenes that go between melodrama and naturalistic acting. The music by Mayzumi is sad but not the way you'd think; it perfectly puts us in a world that should be the "other" but there's something familiar about it, which fits since these characters, all women servicing clientèle to pay off debts and support their families, are here because it's a job, nothing more.
The film itself is conventionally structured in terms of the ensemble: several women including Mickey, Yumeko, Yasumi, go through the few ups and the many downs of being a prostitute in a city and country that is very mixed about it. It's legal, but there's rumblings on the radio about a vote coming up about whether to ban it for, basically, the reasons it's illegal here in the United States (not too oddly though, prostitution became illegal shortly after the film was released). Mizoguchi handles the social strata of this with tact and care. It's not something that needs to be turned into a message-story, because the women themselves are the message. He leaves it up to the audience on whether to decide on it; at the least he doesn't paint any characters to be total monsters or caricatures, which include the Man and Madam of the Dreamland house are down the line businesspeople, offering these women a way to pay off debts in an atmosphere that the government doesn't really care about, "that they just talk and make money".
But in leaving it up to the audience, he offers up a very strong case for how prostitution does, in a realistic setting, disrupt and break up lives, and curse some to their respective fates. In one plot line a girl dupes a businessman by asking him to pay off her BIG debts (i.e. 150,000 yen) with the fooled intent of marrying him; another, Mickey, is the bright and chipper one until her father comes to call bringing a whole volcanic scene that at the end she replies "what is this, a movie?"; an older woman working there keeps trying to call her son, only for him to split ways with her due to the shame it's caused him (he goes a little over the top explaining "the whole world knows", but it still works in that scene on the street); and a young mother of a baby has to find ways to help her sickened husband to get by.
On the surface, these stories don't seem like they would make for a tragic mosaic of existential circumstance. But this is what it is, a movie that features so much life that it ultimately is very heartbreaking to watch. The women are all strong but there's that weakness that is brought on by society's double-standard: it's not seen as something acceptable to go about working in this business, but what else will the women do to work? Some may get married, but at what cost? Mizoguchi's triumph is in making it something Japanese society can relate to and contemplate, but firstly it's about character, about them being three-dimensional: fragile very deep down but with a veneer that says "yeah, this is what I am, whadda ya want?" Most touching of all, with the music included, is at the end when the young new girl (a virgin) is put to her first night on the job, with her looking on in a daze and awe on a booming-business night. It's really remarkable work by a master of his craft.
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